Let's Be "Queer": Exploring the Controversial Umbrella Term

Last year, I was told that queer was a word that I was not allowed to say. I was at lunch with a group of friends and acquaintances, explaining a research project I was working on about the assimilation of the queer community in American society. I was met with a cringe from one of the girls I sat with. “Is that the wording you used?” I nodded my head, confused. “Yeah, that’s the umbrella term,” I replied. “Flows better than LGBTQ+, especially in an academic paper.” The furrowed expression remained on her face. “It’s just… that’s not really a word for you to use,” she began. “Sometimes people within the community choose to use it, but it’s still a slur. So don’t say it, and don’t use it in your research paper.”

This encounter frustrated me for many reasons. First of all, I knew that queer studies was a thing, an academic thing, in fact, where scholars who may or may not have identified as queer studied the community and used the umbrella term. But maybe this was considered disrespectful? I didn’t know. I had a brief talk with my teacher, who told me frankly that he didn’t care what I used, and no term, whether or not it was considered offensive, would lose me points. It would just be a moral issue I had to deal with myself, he said. 

But what bothered me even more was the assumption, without any discussion, that I was not a part of this queer community. Straight is often seen as the “default” sexuality, and the unspoken rule many people follow is that if you’ve never heard or heard about someone talking about their sexuality being anything other than straight, then they’re straight. Obviously, this tense yet casual conversation wasn’t the best time for me to announce to everyone, “Actually, I like girls, so I can use the term if I want to,” because honestly, I still didn’t know if I could. I did not know enough about the word to claim it, and the technicalities of the term ended up being irrelevant to the issues my research paper addressed. So here I am months later, still unsure of the meaning of the word, whether or not I can say it, and whether or not I can be it. 

Since I arrived at Kenyon, my interactions with all things queer have been much more frequent. Maybe it’s because here, I don’t shy away from marveling at pictures of Zendaya with my friends (I even have a poster of her from Euphoria up in my room, along with a rainbow flag and some King Princess art on my shelves). But whatever the reason, I have been exposed to a lot of queer things. First, there was QDubs. I dragged myself to a meeting with a friend the very first week of classes, dreading it the whole way there, a voice in the back of my head telling me, “this is not a place for you.” According to the description on Kenyon’s website, though, QDubs is “open to any student who is ‘not cis, not straight, or not sure’ seeking a queer community at Kenyon.” Maybe I wasn’t such an outsider after all. I’ve heard queer talk in classes, at parties, at meals with my friends. Someone mentioned in my Gender and Race class, for example, that rugby was really the best club to join to meet new queer people. And just last weekend my entire friend group, straight friends included, stopped by Queers and Beers in the Crozier Women’s Center. It’s not just that I’ve heard the term used often, but also that I’ve seen it embraced by the Kenyon community. But I know it’s not like this everywhere. 

The debate over the word queer, what it means, and who can say it is intensified, I believe, when we stop to remember the places where queer is still used as a slur, outside of the Kenyon Bubble. Where people truly think queer people are corrupting today’s youth, and that the queer boy who lives next door to you needs to let Jesus into his life; that queerness is a disease that should be eradicated. Where people, like my friend, Molly, witnessed, while watching IT Chapter 2 at the Mount Vernon movie theater, (spoiler alert) gasp at the image of a queer couple on the big screen and laugh at the murder of a gay man. The word queer was created by homophobes for the sole purpose of alienating and “othering” gay and trans people by calling them abnormal. Though some people outside of the LGBTQ+ community may attempt to use it as a harmless umbrella term, it carries a different weight coming from their voices because it has been used maliciously by so many cisgender, heterosexual people throughout history, and it’s important to recognize this trauma experienced by so many and their discomfort with the word. With this in mind, I see more clearly the point that my high school friend was making. Knowing that the word in the mouths of cishet people is offensive to some, how can we continue to accept their use of it?

We also have to acknowledge the pride many people feel in reclaiming the slur, though. For many people, identifying themselves as queer, or as a part of the queer community, is a big “Fuck you!” to homophobes everywhere. Much like with Pride, which started with the Stonewall Riots and has over the years transformed from protests to parades, it’s empowering for many to be openly proud of something that others have tried so hard to make them feel ashamed of. Considering this, then, how can we take this moment away from queer people by refusing to let their identity be spoken allowed by everyone? Still, some people who identify as queer or as part of the queer community feel that they should be able to use the word, but others shouldn’t. But then we run into the problem of being “out.” If queer people try to police others’ use of the word, they will often end up assuming one’s identity as straight and/or cisgender, and might end up telling someone who identifies as queer but isn’t yet ready to share that information that their own identity isn’t something they can say out loud, which can be damaging for those who may be questioning. Even for those who are more sure of their place in the community, it introduces a sort of hierarchy of “queerness,” leaving some wondering if they are “queer enough” to use the word. I feel confident saying that I’m not straight, for example, but do I need to swear off men, upgrade the rainbow section of my wardrobe, and shout my sexuality from the rooftops before I can identify as queer? And more than that, what does queer even really mean? If I do still like the opposite sex, does that nullify any drop of queerness I might possess? 

When I think of my relationship with the word queer, my mind always goes back to that first experience. There is always a little voice in the back of my head telling me that it is not my word to use, no matter how confident I feel in or how openly I share my sexuality. But the word queer provides for me, and so many other people I know, a label without constraints. It doesn’t explicitly mean gay, or lesbian, or bisexual, but it could encompass any of those, or gender nonconformity, or no specific term at all. Most of all, being able to say that I’m a part of the queer community does fill me with a sense of pride knowing that I have found peace where so many people tried to bring hate. I think it’ll take some time for me to fully embrace using the word queer, and it might not stick, but I know that there’s more to using the word than just one person can decide — whether that means me, my friends from high school, or the leaders of Affinity Groups here at Kenyon. It does end up being an individual choice, I think. It has to. For me, personally, I don’t mind anyone using the word queer in a thoughtful way, so long as they understand the history and significance behind the term, and I don’t think it’s my place to regulate anyone else’s reference to it. However, I know that people are bound to disagree with my seemingly indulgent view of the word. I welcome their differing opinions with open arms and look forward to any opportunity to have a conversation and see things from a new perspective.


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